Don't expect to take a nap while your car does all the hard work.
The future of the motorcar is an exciting one, filled with remarkable technology and developments designed to make our lives easier. As the world prepares to switch over to electric vehicles, autonomous travel has also become a seriously important topic in the motoring sphere. Many are opposed to the idea, citing several issues around the tech. And they have a point: autonomous technology may be clever, but it has raised myriad safety issues.
But Germany has recently signed a law that will allow level four automated vehicles to drive on public roads in the future, within specified areas of operation. How will this work? And which vehicles will be allowed to do this? Audi's Head of General Counsel Legal Services, Uta Klawitter seems to have the inside scoop and, according to her, this doesn't mean German motorists will be able to snooze behind the wheel of their autonomous RS e-tron GT just yet.
So, how will the motorist of the future get around? Klawitter notes that, in Europe, road users can expect to see functions such as highway pilots (for long distances) by 2030. For privately-owned cars, regulations approving level four autonomous functionality do not exist yet in Europe but are expected in 2024 at the earliest.
The legal expert also notes rules surrounding highly automated driving functions within the "bounds of each country's national road traffic laws still need to be introduced." Clearly, there are numerous hurdles that need to be addressed before self-driving technology becomes a widespread reality.
In fact, the Ingolstadt-based carmaker has previously alluded to the fact that autonomous driving still has a long way to go when it comes to regulations. "It will take some time," says Klawitter. "We will see autonomously driven people movers in the cities - which means short distances." What she describes is large-capacity taxis that travel without an actual driver.
Bigger European cities already have intentions to ban cars from city centers, meaning people will have to move around with other types of transport. Klawitter's thinking reflects this, noting urban dwellers won't only use cars. "We will also use scooters, rented bikes, or even mobile rollators for older people. So the forms of mobility there will be even more diverse."
This is also what makes the idea of autonomous vehicles challenging, as the various forms of mobility will need to not only be accessible for people but work together seamlessly. "[This] will be crucial," she said. What's more, an autonomous "ecosystem" will also allow for other convenient benefits. "[You could] reserve a parking spot and a charging station before you even drive into the city in an automated electric car."
Life in the countryside will be a bit different, though, with Klawitter noting country dwellers will still drive their own vehicles. But that's not to say autonomous technology won't benefit more isolated areas. "Like in the city, autonomously driven people movers will expand mobility solutions and thereby offer better access to infrastructure, like shopping opportunities, for example."
But the biggest challenge comes from the technology itself. Not only does the automated driving system need to be smooth and efficient but, most importantly, safe. "Only then - and this is the second challenge - will it gain social acceptance and the corresponding trust." But there's a third challenge that needs solving.
Klawitter says regulations surrounding the technology need to be harmonized, at least at a European level for now. If not, the use of these vehicles across national borders will remain limited, bringing up numerous complexities.
With regards to the European legal framework, Germany is ahead of the game. Klawitter notes the country has taken a different approach to the other leading markets, China and the US. "In the US, people are more curious about technical innovations and therefore tolerate more risks." Tesla's Full-Self Driving Beta software may be massively clever but, as we've seen, has taken to performing daring stunts that wouldn't go over well with German officials.
So what's on the horizon? Well, Klawitter says currently, laws allow level four autonomous vehicles to operate without the need of a driver, but under strict conditions. "It is only possible in public traffic within previously approved areas of operation." The focus here is currently still on the people mover and logistics transportation.
She believes a cautious approach is best. "It will be evolutionary, not revolutionary like in the US or China. That can also be an advantage because the evolutionary track can build trust in the quality of the function, which our customers also expect from us."